Thursday, November 29, 2007

"You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."
--G.W. Bush, Townsend, Tennessee, Feb. 21, 2001

This is one of the 'best' embarrassing presidential quotes I've heard from this guy. It's the perfect enactment of the way his public persona works in the context of his political achievements. There's the obvious and ironic idiocy of it; he's thought of as a bumbler, a bad speaker. A slightly subtler level is the tautological nature of its reasoning--just as, in his politics, acts are self-justifying in a way that would make a hardcore existentialist shudder. Finally (and still not so subtle), there's the reduction of the value of literacy to the ability to pass a test--just as the Bush administration's agenda is to whittle everything meant for the public good down to what will directly serve the profits of employers and owners.


The detachment I can achieve in relation to that quote went out the window when I heard Naomi Wolf on "Democracy Now!" today. I usually don't get scared per se, but this does the trick.


In a perfect illustration of the power of fear, I responded first by thinking about what to do about fascism, then by buying things: Wolf's book and the bp Nichol reader. Then, tonight, I saw I'm Not There, the new Todd Haynes movie about Dylan.

It's absolutely stunning, confirming again that Haynes is the best filmmaker in the U.S., and one of the couple best in the world. I need to see it again before writing extensively about it. Cinematically nearly perfect, incredible acting, moving and strange, and characterized by a tone that's neither naive nor self-referential, that's somewhere between or outside of a number of other dichotomies of narrative cinema. Quotation without scare quotes. It's probably--in a strange way--the best film about U.S. culture I've ever seen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Happy Birthday (now yesterday) to Helmut Lachenmann, at 72 still writing the most breathtaking, otherworldly music I've ever heard.


some of the dumbest book titles I've recently noted at work (the library)

Anthony Trollope is up there for the "classics:"

He Knew He Was Right
Can You Forgive Her?
Phineas Finn: the Irish Member
The Eustace Diamonds
Dr. Wortle's School

then there's Nora Roberts, a.k.a J.D. Robb:

Immortality in Death
Rapture in Death
Holiday in Death
Seduction in Death
Portrait in Death
Imitation in Death
Divided in Death

...you get the point.

Then there are the romance novels of Sandra Hill:

The Very Virile Viking
The Reluctant Viking
Truly, Madly Viking
(I'm serious)
The Blue Viking
My Fair Viking
Here Comes Santa Claus

and lastly:

Kathy Reichs' Death du Jour
and my very favorite,
Deja Dead


Friday, November 23, 2007

I was sad to hear, the other day, about the death (a suicide) of the poet Landis Everson, whose writing I began to love a couple of years ago, when Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy published some of his new poems (the first in decades) in Mirage#4/Period(ical).

Here I want to thank them for that, to thank Kevin and Lewis Ellingham for their varied efforts in bringing Everson's work to attention again (I had heard his name in lists of writers around Jack Spicer in the 1950s, and found out more through Killian & Ellingham's Spicer biography, Poet, Be Like God), and to thank Ben Mazer for starting the whole thing off by featuring Everson's early work in the third issue of Fulcrum and encouraging the writing of his last years.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Over the weekend, 25,000 people gathered in Columbus, Georgia to call for the closure of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

I didn't go this year, but should have.

Learn about it here. This movement is part a history that charges the present and ruptures the membrane of the future, that possibility might flood the desert of the actual.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"The possible contradictions of the war photograph now become apparent... the most extreme examples... show moments of agony in order to extort the maximum concern. Such moments... are discontinuous with all other moments. They exist by themselves. But the reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel this discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy... the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody."
--John Berger*

"In [Goya's The Third of May, 1808], the soldiers faces are hidden from view[...] Godard chooses to take the camera inside the painting here, shooting the soldiers "face on" in a slow tracking shot along the barrels of their guns, while a voice-over states 'You do nothing to change yourselves'. This intrusion into the painting's "life" is not just a simple aesthetic trick[...] "Take concentration camps, for instance. The only real film to be made about them -- which has never been made because it would be intolerable -- would be if a camp were filmed from the point of view of the torturers and their daily routine . . . The really horrible thing about such scenes would not be their horror but their very ordinary everydayness." (Godard on Godard, 198) [...] instead of letting the viewer empathise with the holocaust victims in the face of anonymous oppression, he would give faces to these oppressors, which is exactly what he does with the Goya sequence in Passion. Godard gives an analysis of a similar "painting" to that of Goya's in Six Fois deux, this time of a photograph depicting Nazis in the foreground (shot from behind) torturing someone in the background (shot so the viewer can see his face). A voice-over says: "They always photograph the ones who are doing the torturing from the back and their victims face on." Again, this seems to be the preferred relationship of "objective" photographs between oppressor and oppressed, so the viewer can empathise with the victim. By breaking the plane of Goya's work, Godard challenges this commodified, archetypal aspect of mise-en-scene."
--Glen Norton**

* from About Looking. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Quoted in Tina Darragh's "Numb to Dumb," in Crayon no.4. Milwaukee, 2004

** from Godard's Passion

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

A couple of bits from my sequence Return Policy are in the new EAOGH, and in fine company.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

favorite tidbits from The Grand Piano, part 4

Carla Harryman:

The structure of memory is formed between what's been purged and held in. Why not make a formal writing experiment of what I never said? (17)

[The account of reading Genet as a liberation from Eliotic modernism on pp.18-19]

...the sex that delivers one to the surprise sensation of self-coherence through the smell of somebody else. (24)

Tom Mandel:

[on Robert Duncan, during the conflicted Watten/Duncan talk on Zukofsky in 1978]:

He didn't like Barry's attempt to "materialize Zukofsky, both textually and politically" [...] He shone, but his brilliance was frightening. His evangelical bearing--Christian and Spiritualist--scared me. Zukofsky was a Jew and a materialist [...] Only now, writing this account, do I realize what undid me: the Christian authoritarian use of the Jew. (60)

I wonder what one wins in these poetry wars? Daily life with acolytes? If that's utopia, give me la derive. (61)

Barrett Watten:

[...] we wanted a big canvas, of time and space, so unlike the twenty-five minute limit of poetry readings now. (64)

There is no difference between myself and what I do, all day every day, except that I myself am suspended in that difference: this is not me. (70)

The silence of everyday life is that it passes without memory, without recording. If only we could write that silence, we would return to everyday life. (81)

Rae Armantrout:

I identified with that kid even as he distracted me and messed up my handwriting (so that I crossed my "k"s). So the noise becomes the signal. (87)

Ted Pearson:

Everyday life requires an exercise of faith: that daily practice, each next word, will attend what is, as it is, and lead to what might be otherwise. (89)

Ron Silliman:

The second stage [of the Talks] was much more organized than the first. For one thing, everybody had talked about the first thing that came to mind already. (134)

Steve Benson:

[...] in Language writing, "self" became [...] all sorts of things, and next to nothing, but always something else. It didn't vanish, it just wasn't willing to be taken for granted anymore [...] (138-139)

--Are you saying you transcended your potential tendencies toward narcissistic self-preoccupation by--
--No, they were incorporated into it [...] The narcissism kept getting recycled by the social [...] Isn't political action predicated on identifying its practice with getting something one finds or believes one needs? (140)

(and plenty of other passages that aren't excerptable)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

on The Grand Piano, part 4

I find each installment of The Grand Piano more intriguing than the last.

As the project goes on, the standpoints of the participants seem increasingly to diverge (I'm not certain whether this is happening in the writing itself or as a cumulative effect of reading). There's a friction , I think, between this divergence and Barrett Watten's ongoing attempt to cement the legend of Language Poetry. In much of his writing (here and in The Constructivist Moment), Watten is concerned to solidly establish the 'we' of these writers in a history of singular avant-garde cultural formations--to present the 'Language School' (of which he's, I think, the only member to employ that phrase, comfortably and without scare quotes), with all its variety, as a unified moment and rupture, a negative expression of discursive formations in a particular nexus of sociopolitical situations. Watten wants this writing ensconced in literary history, and for that he needs a myth.*

It's this myth that most often comes under attack when people complain about Language poetry (rather than the writing itself, which most critics seem not to have read very thoroughly): the presentation of an avant-garde collective, a unified front without precedent, claiming for itself a permanently oppositional status that these critics claim has become institutionalized, gaining power in terms of social status while losing power as a radical critique. This is already a caricature of Watten's presentation; while there is a drive toward a particular kind of institutionalization (of the 'school's' cultural significance, more than of the writers and their paid positions or blogging status), he most definitely sees LP as historical, and has insisted on the relation of the work to specific contexts.** If LP needed a defense against these dismissals, though, I find the fractured picture painted by this memoir to be a more compelling one than any instance of a more thoroughly theorized coherence.

Watten's approach has its varied antipodes and alternatives in The Grand Piano. Ron Silliman tends toward a more modest mode of historiography, crisp and straightforward (his entry here concentrates on the "talks" series, often unjustly overshadowed, in discourse about LangPo's theoretical production, by The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, perhaps because the printed records of the former are simply harder to find). Rae Armantrout's contributions are condensed, wry, direct and full of uncertainty. "I guess," "I hope so," and "I don't know"appear frequently, and (as in her poems) there's a discomfort with easy categories and answers. Here her recent bout with cancer and the relation to mortality that comes with that (which, incidentally, her most recent poems treat with a humor that astounds me) are juxtaposed with a nostalgia for an infinite, open time to place 'everyday life' (this volume's central concept) at a distance. Steve Benson's mode is an increasingly incisive self-questioning. Lyn Hejinian continues the philosophical investigations that have always characterized her work (though in a new and more explicit way since Happily), here meditating on the nature of memory in relation to the everyday and placing reminiscences about Tuumba Press beside events in the newspaper from 1977 to 1979. Kit Robinson (an exemplary poet with regard to the relation of writing to the everyday) here looks at poetry and jobs; as with the majority of his entries and his poetry, this one is characterized by a 'keeping-on-one's toes' sort of restlessness, an attention that wanders while remaining attentive. Carla Harryman's contributions are unsummarizable. They're regularly the most wide-ranging and self-sufficient of the bunch and, regardless of their position in the order of a given volume, seem to elicit the most response, from outside readers as well as from the other participants. They deserve their own blog post.***

Bob Perelman is certainly the most direct and skeptical questioner of the 'myth' (and has been so increasingly for at least a decade now), and of his own status in relation to it, both as participant and as critic. In book 4, Perelman introduces 'utopia' into the conversation, with its unstable relation to the concept of everyday life ("utopias aim at a clarified, just version of what everyday life could be; and in bad times, everyday life can seem like a utopian prospect" (GP4, p.116)). In this history, is utopia being treated as something that's already happened? Language poetry as entrenched, protected, "an unimpeachably recognizable object of study" (p.119)? Perelman's account of the panel "Language Writing and the Body" reproduces, in a displaced way, the same variety of investments in accounting for this writing that one finds in The Grand Piano, contrasting Steve Benson's self-critical performance, Leslie Scalapino's implied critique of narratives like GP, Maria Damon's feminist analysis of women's avant-garde writing (including Harryman's contributions to the collective autobiography, which contain the lion's share of its explicit instances of feminism), and Bruce Andrews' apparently 'LangPo-canonical' presentation. Perelman contrasts this event, in which he finds an uncomfortable 'MLA-like' character, with the Talks, which he found much more open, unstable, in process, utopian. He then recounts a conversation with Andrews at the after-party about whether there is, or has been, any 'Language writing' per se, and the answer is highly ambiguous. In conclusion, he asks who holds the "two-edged sword" that carves "the trench that founds Utopia... King Utopus or His Majesty the Ego"[?] (p.126).

It's less the opposition of this skepticism and uncertainty to Watten's heroism that makes up The Grand Piano's picture of a collective than it is the kaleidoscopic differences among all its contributors' work. As the project progresses, the 'collective' known as 'West Coast Language Poetry' loses, not its reality, but its subsumption of its individual members under a single umbrella (or piano).*****
The collective is coming to seem like something that happened (happens? happens here again? in any case, an in-motion occurrence rather than an organic entity) between its participants, in the crossing of the various shifting lines of friendships, collaborations, events, writings, responses, individual relations to separate social contexts overlapping and diverging. The collective subsists (subsisted? in any case, rather than 'exists,' 'existed') in the proposal of it, the calling it into question, the interest in it as an event and the lack of that interest as central, in singular/exemplary works and in ongoing processes--in the shifting relations between all these. Instead of a force, a wedge, a school, a set of rules--something being done, a real epiphenomenon of actual things being done and imagined.


Two notes unattached to particular moments in this post:

--As this divergence occurs, Watten's own contributions become more specific, more essays in their own right; though they've had this characteristic all along, the deliquescent "we" dominates his tone to a lesser extent in GP 4, even though it does end with "we were just about to make a big noise" (p.85). Here he makes brilliant statements on the relation of writing to the everyday, on negativity and art, in relation to a series of presentations he gave in December 1979, culminating in the premiere of 1-10, one of those exemplary moments in contemporary poetry.

--I'd guess I'm more attracted to this dispersed picture of a writing community than to Watten's partly because I discovered Language Writing with a group of friends in Urbana back in 1995 or so (none of us had any idea who these people were, and the writing didn't tell us that either), in the context of a less lasting but just as multiple nexus of collaborations, enthusiasms and interrelationships, in which some of us (including myself) were given to bold theoretical pronouncements, others not, and in which all of us had different kinds and degrees of investment. The fact that this poetry took us by surprise, seemed so strange and estranging, seemed to come out of nowhere, that it didn't seem to form a unity at all, has become progressively more valuable to me as I encounter more and more people who came to the same writing in universities, presented with a small bit of the theory first, had it packaged for them--people who were given the arguments for the writing before they had a chance to encounter the writing itself.

*I want to point out that "myth" doesn't equal "lie," and that my preference for the presentation that emerges from this collective memoir doesn't equal a wholesale dismissal of Watten's project in this regard.

**There's also, in many of these criticisms, the always-disturbing hatred of what's passed, the reviling of the old, the "over" (which is not only cold but inaccurate, since some of these writers are, I'd argue, producing their finest work now).

***I haven't said anything here about the other two participants, Tom Mandel and Ted Pearson. It's only for reasons of space, but it's unfortunately typical; they're writers who have received less attention than the others in general.

****Either one will protect you from the rain; the piano is bigger, less mobile, and more canonically musical (the umbrella would require the invention of new techniques, and probably a contact microphone). Furniture and the Sitting vs. the Portable Object and the Walk?

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Here's one more recent one--a possible book cover.


Those are some pieces from up to nine years back (click on 'em for bigger versions). I've been trying to pick this stuff up again. Here's hoping.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

As far as I'm concerned, the most cogent issue in the debate between Juliana Spahr & Stephanie Young (on the one hand) and Jennifer Ashton (a debate discussed quite a bit recently in the poetry blogworld) is one that isn't explicitly part of either of their Chicago Review essays. It's a question placed at the meeting point of the issues of representation/privilege and anti-essentialism, and might be phrased:

"Can one be a materialist and anti-essentialist feminist?"

I want to give a positive answer to this question.

The anti-essentialist Ashton claims that anthologies of experimental writing by women reproduce the sex/gender categories whose radical critique is often a crucial part of the poetics and politics of the editors and writers whose work those anthologies represent:

When women's "innovative" poetry anthologies moved from an anti-discriminatory agenda to an aesthetic one [...] the continued insistence on the importance of the poems as women's poems transformed the contingent relation between the sex of the authors and the forms of their poems into a necessary one.
Chicago Review 53:2/3, p.117

A materialist response might be:
The facts show that women are still discriminated against and defined by their sex; therefore, the publication of a women-only anthology simply is still an anti-discriminatory act. Furthermore, the women-only listserv (another target of Ashton's critique) is a response to a situation in which, in public online forums, women still have to face social circumstances that can be intolerable; therefore, a listserv like this is needed so that conversations that might be aggressively disrupted, mocked, or simply drowned out otherwise can happen at all.

I'd say that Spahr and Young are materialists (the point of view that material conditions are the basis of other conditions). Since they're explicitly not particularly concerned with the question of essentialism, their essay and Ashton's response don't speak directly to one another. That's why I wanted to offer my own attempt at a response that's both materialist and anti-essentialist:

The argument is pretty simple. It assumes agreement with the connected claims:
1) The anti-essentialist project is not yet complete.
2) Being biologically female is still a powerfully (and negatively) defining cultural category.

Given (2), a biologically female writer will be seen/read as female whether she likes it or not (unless she works pseudo- or anonymously) . Assume an editor who considered all ideas about essential femininity to be inherently problematic and undesirable, an editor who wanted to put together an anthology of experimental writing that called essentialism into question. How might the anthology enact an instance of such questioning? I'd argue that a women-only anthology could be one perfectly valid response to the problem.

In any collection of entities of extraordinary variety, the individual entities are going to be grouped according to the most accessible cognitive categories available for grouping entities. It's only when attention is paid explicitly to a collection of entities "of the same kind" that one begins to note the differences between them, perhaps even coming to the conclusion that they don't belong in the same category at all, or that some of them seem to belong to multiple categories, thus calling the categories themselves into question.

Given (2), an anthology that contains a few women, or 50% women, will be read in terms of its proportional representation of two sexes ("twelve men and six women"), whereas an anthology of writing by women will, once one gets beyond its most superficial characteristic, sidestep that question, potentially offering instead the opportunity to see a wide variety within the category "women," and perhaps to ask "why do these varied relations to one's sex all fall into the same category?" If it's an anthology of "innovative writing by women," the common care for innovation might throw into even higher relief the unchosen, sex-based category.

This is actually all in Ashton's argument itself; she asks why "women" and "innovative" should go together in the absence of an asserted necessary connection between them. My argument is that they go together for contingent, materialist reasons: given the state of things at the present time, one way to exemplify the thought that would be appropriate to (and represent a movement towards) a more desirable state of things is to pragmatically frame a literary act in accordance with the present state, precisely in order to show its inconsistencies, its shakiness as a frame.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

a hastily written excursus on "I Once Met"

I once met Kent Johnson's I Once Met. It was last night, shortly after I met its author. I found it to be (as I've said) both tender and funny. Why, though, do I also find it interesting?

1) There's a naturalness to it (which predominated in the reading), the sense of "here are some little stories from my life." Then there's the artifice of it (impossible to ignore in reading the full text): not only the question of the truth of any given anecdote (ultimately not a very interesting question to try to answer--though its presence as a question is, I think, interesting), but also the repeating formal structure, borrowed from Joe Brainard's I Remember, the various impossible or highly unlikely events, and the goofy diction of some of Johnson's sentences (his use of the poetic "O," for instance). These are like casual little Verfremdungseffekts, reminding the reader of the literary status of the text--though the naturalness persists. The work never settles on one side or the other.

2) I don't think I've seen an explicit consideration of "the meeting" as unit of experience before.

Why is it important "to have met?" So many people, myself included, talk about it.

There are, of course, the status-granting aspects: I can tell people, for instance, that I've met Wallace Shawn, and they will be impressed (I found him to be friendly, excited that I'd been involved in performances of some of his more obscure plays, amusing, a bit awkward, and very like Wallace Shawn). In any case, it feels good to me to have met someone "famous" and thus "inaccessible."

Within an art scene, of course, meeting a more-or-less established artist can be seen as a way to "make connections," advance one's own career.

Then there's the notion that an artist whose work you know seems like a kindred spirit, or just nice person to talk to, and that the experience of meeting them might be mutually pleasurable (this is all kind of obvious and boring, isn't it?).

(At times, I've attempted to meet more established poets based on this kind of motivation. Sometimes it works, and we talk about our mutual interest in some other poet, or composer, or sociopolitical problem or movement. I know it's working if the person I'm meeting doesn't immediately ask me what my last name is. When they do, it seems like the situation is being placed back in the "status" category, which I'm probably trying to avoid--as if they're asking, "should I know your name?". This is all very slippery, since they might be asking out of a genuine interest in discovering new writing, and not out of an assumption that what's happening is an instance of "scene-politics.")

(I once met Lyn Hejinian. She had given a reading at UC San Diego; she read "Happily" and parts of A Border Comedy. I told her how much I appreciated the way she was able, in this recent work, to fuse philosophy and poetry without producing a haphazard philosophy or a poetry with philosophical "icing." She asked, "are you in Michael [Davidson]'s class?" I answered that I wasn't a student at all, just a poet and enthusiastic reader, and she said "Oh, great! A real person!")

Then there's the meeting with the person you've seen around for a long time, or have even been in the room with frequently, but have never really begun to know. This is an interesting one.

Some of the most amazing people I've met are vast repositories of stories of the amazing people they've met (some famous in whatever sphere, some who almost no-one would have heard of). These people most often seem to come out of activist contexts (though some artistic ones as well); their meetings haven't been a matter of personal advancement, because their lives simply are their histories of relations with others, organized collectively around common projects.

The meetings in I Once Met seem variously to involve these motivations and more, and often many at once. At times the repeated formal marker "I once met" doesn't quite work. In one instance of this, Johnson writes that he "once met" David Bromige, shortly after hanging out with him in Sebastopol. This gives a slight shift to the meaning of the phrase; it could now mean something more like "I once met so-and-so for coffee." In one of the most moving sections of the book, Johnson says that he has not met one of his sons, a claim which a tiny bit of research shows to be literally untrue--unless, again, the meaning of the phrase has shifted: they have not yet come to know each other in the right way, never connected in the way Johnson wishes they had and hopes, someday, they will.

I'm trying, in too many words, to get to the observation that, by using the phrase "I once met" in a formally consistent way, Johnson opens to the reader's view this range of meanings a meeting can have between people, and in different social contexts. As in all of his best writing about the social worlds of poetry itself, he here avoids reducing the interactions taking place in those worlds to one underlying motivation or other. By choosing a more culturally loaded marker than, for instance, Joe Brainard's "I remember," Johnson points explicitly to a complex of behaviors that, in other works, he might satirize with a much sharper tooth. Here, however, the real uncertainty about what is going on "beneath the surface" of these meetings and the recounting of them (and their frequent fictionalizations) is held in suspension, delicately--and it's the attention to that fragile moment, in which the situation could turn out one way or another, or turn out to mean one thing or another, that gives the book its valuable humanness. The fact that the recurring phrase sometimes loses its meaning almost entirely can be read as an analogy for the superficial layer of these encounters--and thus a parodic critique--while, through the very fracturing of this superficiality, revealing the richer possibilities layered and mixed up underneath. In this sense, it's a call for patience, consideration, rethinking, care.


I had a great time reading with Kent tonight in Milwaukee. He's a sweetheart, and a fine reader.

Kent read from I Once Met (anecdotal memoir-paragraphs on meeting/not meeting poets, scholars, his own children); it's a funny and tender book, as moving in the sections I suspect are made up as in the ones I think aren't.

We had goat curry beforehand with Roberto and Brenda; Roberto sure can cook, and it was lovely of him to set up the reading.

Hung out with varied buddies old and new at Tony's, one of the comfier bars I've visited in recent memory. Finally met David Baptiste-Chirot in person.

I feel like being extremely kind and considerate to everyone
and I feel like reading lots and lots of poetry. For very many years.

I also feel that I have eaten too much delicious pizza, but that I've digested enough of it to go to sleep.

Friday, November 02, 2007

tomorrow's reading

I'm excited to be reading with Kent Johnson tomorrow:

Enemy Rumor
November 3, 2007, 7 pm
@ Walker's Point Center for the Arts

911 W. National Ave., Milwaukee, WI